Koufax's dominance was short but sweet
By Larry Schwartz
Special to ESPN.com
If one were to put music to a career, the dominant notes in Sandy Koufax's would most effectively be reached with violins. For Babe Ruth, it would be base drums for obvious reasons. But for Koufax, violins -- bittersweet and vaguely ambiguous, like gypsy music.
Like Salinger, author of the classic "The Catcher in the Rye," Koufax was given over to public adulation only a short time as careers go (Koufax's was ended by injury at age 30). He was a performer so true to himself that, in the end, he refused to let money change him or make him linger. When he knew he was damaged goods, he decided his career was over, not the Los Angeles Dodgers. At the peak of his game, he passed up a guaranteed salary for 1967 and simply walked away.
Conquering batters had not been so simple. For much of his first six seasons, the 6-foot-2, 210-pound left-hander languished on the bench. Finally, in 1961, he showed the first consistent signs of greatness, striking out a National League record 269 batters. Then, in his final five seasons, he dominated.
The weak-hitting high school first baseman produced the remarkable record of 111-34 with a 2.02 earned-run average over 1,377 innings from 1962 through '66, leading the league in ERA each year. Koufax won three Cy Young Awards (at that time, it was for the best pitcher in the majors, not merely the league), and, if not for a finger ailment in 1962 and an elbow injury in 1964, he probably would have been voted the award all five years.
"Hitting against him is like eating soup with a fork," Pittsburgh Pirates slugger Willie Stargell said.
Koufax pitched an NL-record four no-hitters, including a perfect game. Twice he fanned 18 batters in a game, and in 1965 he whiffed 382, a major-league record until broken by Nolan Ryan. In 1963, he won the MVP with a 25-5 record, and in the World Series he beat Whitey Ford twice in five days as the Dodgers swept the Yankees.
"I can see how he won 25 games," Yankees catcher Yogi Berra said. "What I don't understand is how he lost five."
Through all his success, Koufax hid behind what Ed Linn -- who wrote Koufax's autobiography with the pitcher -- called his "wall of amiability." That was Koufax's ability to be perfectly polite and accommodating while keeping everyone at arm's length and revealing little about himself.
He was born Sanford Braun on Dec. 30, 1935 in Brooklyn, N.Y. When he was 2, he was given the name of his stepfather, attorney Irving Koufax. He grew up playing sports in Jewish community clubs and schoolyards in postwar Brooklyn, where the neighborhood kids included future comedian Buddy Hackett and talk-show host Larry King. Basketball was Koufax's main interest.
He accepted a basketball scholarship to the University of Cincinnati with intentions of eventually becoming an architect. After averaging 9.7 points a game on the 12-2 freshman team, Koufax joined the varsity baseball team, posting a 3-1 record and striking out 51 batters in 32 innings. He signed with the hometown Brooklyn Dodgers that winter for a $14,000 bonus.
Under the prevailing bonus rules, Koufax had to remain on the Dodgers' roster for two years rather than get needed pitching experience in the minors. While Brooklyn won pennants in 1955 and 1956, he pitched only 100 1/3 innings.
The next four seasons, with the last three being in Los Angeles, he was given more innings but didn't do much to distinguish himself. It seemed as if he tried to throw every ball through the catcher, causing him to be quite wild. In his first six seasons, when he went 36-40, he walked 405 in 691 2/3 innings.
The turning point of his career came in 1961, during a bus ride to a spring-training exhibition game. Backup catcher Norm Sherry told him he should concentrate more on throwing the ball over the plate rather than breaking the sound barrier, and be more varied and selective with his pitches.
"Sandy, you could solve your control problem if you'd just try to throw the ball easier," Sherry said. "Just get it over the plate. You've still got enough swift on it to get the hitters out."
Though he had received that advice before, this time the message penetrated. "In the past I'd go out there and, every pitch I threw, I'd try to throw harder than the last one," Koufax said. "From then on I tried to throw strikes and make them hit the ball. The whole difference was control. Not just controlling the ball, but controlling myself, too."
After a six-year storm came the calm of success. Throwing with an easier rhythm and relying more on a crackling curve ("it drops like a chair whose legs collapse," catcher John Roseboro said), Koufax went 18-13 with a 3.52 ERA, walking 96 in 255 2/3 innings and breaking Christy Mathewson's 58-year-old strikeout record by two.
That was just a warm-up to his accomplishments of the next five seasons. He had his second 18-strikeout game and first no-hitter in 1962. He was 14-4 with 209 strikeouts by July 12, when he came down with circulatory problems and numbness in his left index finger. His season abruptly collapsed. Put under a doctor's care, he was sidelined for much of the rest of the season, except for a few futile appearances late in the year.
A healthy Koufax rebounded in 1963 with the first of his three pitching Triple Crowns, leading the league in wins, ERA (1.88) and strikeouts (306). But the next season, in August, he banged his left elbow on the ground diving back to second base. Two more starts (both wins) and he was through for the season, with a 19-5 record and 1.74 ERA. The jolt triggered his arthritis.
In 1965, Koufax recovered and went 26-8 with a 2.04 ERA to win his second Cy Young. The first game of the World Series fell on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for Jews, and Koufax went to the synagogue rather than to the mound. He pitched the next day, and lost. But then he blanked the Minnesota Twins in Games 5 and 7 to give the Dodgers the Series.
Koufax had one more magnificent season left in his arthritic arm. After staging a holdout with Don Drysdale, Koufax signed and won his third Cy Young -- with a 27-9 record and 1.73 ERA -- despite the pain in his left elbow.
Doctors warned that he risked losing the use of the arm if he continued to pitch. That November he retired. "I don't regret for one minute the 12 years I've spent in baseball," he said, "but I could regret one season too many."
With his lifetime record of 165-87, 2.76 ERA and 2,396 strikeouts in 2,324 1/3 innings, in 1972 he became, at 36, the youngest player voted into the Hall of Fame.